Six thoughts on ‘the carbon fix’

The following paragraphs present my reflections after reading four chapters of the book ‘The Carbon Fix’ (2016), edited by Stephanie Paladino and Shirley Fiske, and which I had the honor to preface. I acted as a discussant of these contributions in the recently held Annual Meeting of the American Association of Anthropologists, Minneapolis, 19th November 2016.

I would like to start thanking the Panel conveners and Book Editors, Shirley and Fiske, for inviting me to be here and to write the book’s Foreword. I’m not going to read the argument put together in the Foreword, which revolved around the importance of thinking about ‘The Carbon Fix’ through the lens of justice, but to sketch instead six thoughts I had when reading four of the articles led by James, Michael, Laura and Pam, who are here today.

First thought: Critique versus accommodation

The four papers reflect all together the tension between the rejection of ‘the carbon economy’ grounded on critical enquiry –regardless of the critique’s angle: anthropology, geography, political economy or ecological economics- and the acceptance of such economy, which comes with suggestions for improvement, such as making carbon projects or REDD+ activities more sensitive and attune with social-ecological contexts, as well as more sensitive to participation and distribution, at least at the national and local scales.

This tension is of course not new and it’s a recurrent one in debates about environmental offsetting, since its emergence in the 1970s in the United States, or in debates for other social policy domains, such as conditional cash transfers. Walden Bello, for example, has argued that conditional cash transfers are ‘about poverty containment rather than poverty reduction’, and that they are promoted by institutions that support forms of macro-economic growth that engender the conditions of poverty that such cash transfers are supposed to alleviate. Does it ring a bell?

Second thought: Long life to critique!

The second thought I had when reading the four articles is that critical scholars should be proud of themselves: I think we have contributed a lot to deflate the balloon of this new carbon economy or, while writing, we have made it look bigger than it has ever actually been. For example, offset markets are relatively small or they are working very poorly when compared to other commodity markets. Many airlines stopped offering offsets in 2011 onwards because nobody would pay for them. Three of the four articles show quite neatly that REDD+ has become more an aid-based mechanism, than it has been a market-based one with strong conditionalities attached. It has been more ‘aid/donor as usual’ by governments, NGOs and consultants, than a revolutionary mechanism leading to dispossessing farmers from forests –with unquestionable exceptions, of course. Many communities involved in REDD+ pilots worldwide are waiting for payments to materialize after participating in policy and project-based design processes.

I’m not suggesting that there are no markets at all, and that we have invented the balloon all together. But I’m suggesting that our critique might have been more effective than we could have imagined, resulting in less appetite for these new sort of ‘invisible’ nature commodities than we originally envisaged when we saw the balloon inflating. In Mexico, except for a few organisations now pushing for emission reduction initiatives under World Bank support, nobody associates REDD+ with carbon trading. NGOs want to think, rightly or wrongly –and we can discuss this later-, that REDD+ will mostly be about receiving money from the international community to develop sustainable rural development plans. Should this be seen as a conquest from the critics and from those who resist ‘the carbon fix’?

Third thought: Cashing in

Yes, we have probably contributed to deflate or explode the balloon altogether. However, while we were busy deconstructing nature and burying rather than sequestering carbon, a few cashed in and no tangible or relevant benefits reached forest communities. Three of the four papers argue that most of the money invested in preparing carbon forestry markets or REDD+ governance has gone to state governments, consultants, NGOs, and the like. Efforts to clarify tenure relations, particularly in favor of forest communities, have been weak. Activities geared at sustainable and profitable timber extraction that can uplift livelihoods have been limited to a few projects and have been insufficiently sustained over time. Time and money invested in social processes, such as participation and consent, or at building the social contract Michael advocates for, have been scarce.

Fourth thought: the never-ending story

This last point takes me to my fourth thought, which goes one step further: when is there ‘enough participation’ in ‘the carbon fix’? And what kind of participation should be pursued? Insights from the three empirical articles suggest that farmers, forest dwellers, and communities in general are poorly informed and misunderstand what’s behind a carbon or REDD+ project, i.e. the ultimate purpose, trading carbon, their additional objectives, supporting livelihoods, and how these should be achieved in practice. As a result, there are calls for more and better participation. But how? And funded by whom?

I just arrived from Mexico, where the government finalised a public consultation of the REDD+ strategy targeting thousands of villages throughout the country and developing dozens of focus group discussions in capitals and other towns of REDD+ priority regions. The process was apparently rushed, and somewhat flawed, but despite this tremendous effort, critiques from civil society organisations abound, on the grounds that more efforts are needed to reach everybody who might be potentially affected by future land management activities under REDD+. I could not agree more, but who would fund such continuous effort? When should we call participatory processes to a close? Which lending agencies and private donors are willing to support bottom-up participatory processes forever?

Another difficulty is to identify who should participate in these participatory processes and to develop those in a way that are both inclusive and respectful . Understanding tenure dynamics, understood as the set of social relations and property rights that glue the socio-ecological fabric that forests represent, is always a good starting point to deal with the whom and the how. As the Vietnam and Brazil papers implicitly suggest, this is by no means a straightforward task because legality and legitimacy in land tenure mean different things to different people. If we were to extend the participatory processes in the Brazilian carbon projects, why should not we also involve the migrants who threaten indigenous peoples’ territories? Which advantages or disadvantages would that have? And in Vietnam, should projects targeting state-owned forests involve the inhabiting but untitled communities? And those projects targeting land titled to ethnic groups… should they involve in participatory processes the government which feels entitled to carbon ownership and carbon rights?

Fifth thought: More ‘superfluous’ research

We, the academics in the room, have also benefited from the new carbon economy through the pursuit of research grants. Therefore, outlining a few areas of additional enquiry might sound superfluous, even hypocritical. Our panelists have shown that, in each project, or in the REDD+ preparedness phase, there is an important number of intermediaries about which we know little about: it is known who they are, but why they operate the way they do, in which countries, under which operational assumptions, and if they got involved in the carbon economy as a mode of institutional reproduction or as a life source has not been well researched and systematised.

The scholarship of the ‘new carbon economy’ has probably not been sufficiently in contact with anthropologists like those present in this conference and in this Panel. Articles about carbon projects and REDD+ have not sufficiently problematized very contested social entities like ‘the community’, or ‘the indigenous’. We have been more interested on unearthing the challenges of realising justice at the intersection of project proponents and communities, and of communities and the global community (including donors, prospective carbon buyers and citizens), or at the level of international negotiations, than we have been on explaining how carbon projects and offsets create new elites at local level, and how they might be helping some to gain power against others. We have also not paid sufficient attention to how these projects and REDD+ preparedness might have politically favored some social identities over others, and why.

Another under explored question relates to the existence of contradictory policy incentives that will compromise any promised emission reductions and the lack of interest in REDD+ activities by agribusiness, mining and timber companies.  In this regard, and during my stay in Mexico last week, an officer of the national forestry commission complained about how little interest the agricultural ministry had so far had in the REDD+ readiness phase and how difficult it had been for the forestry commission to receive attention from agribusinesses and timber management organisations. This is again a commonly found weakness of REDD+ preparedness throughout the world, which in turn suggest that those who aim to ‘trade nature to save it’ or ‘to destroy nature all together’ are, albeit some exceptions, two separate social networks. I think that we wrongly believe they go together because a few NGOs from the former group get funding from a few large multinationals from the latter.

Six thought: ‘Doing good, feeling bad’

Finally, I would not like to conclude without a final reflection that came to mind after reading Jim’s article. In my view, the mere existence of the conservationist movement, and the more recent ‘selling nature to trade it’ one, seems to connect with some kind of logic of ‘doing good’, rooted in a sense of guilt that we want to confront. This sense of guilt is related to our consumerist behavior, which has inextricable and complex links to a series of environmental impacts across the world. Knowing this springs in us a desire to find ways of alleviating these impacts and ease our consciousness. But the sense of guilt is also related to the fact that we have increasingly become urban beings, detached from everyday natural resource management, and who feel the need to support those who still live somewhat like our ancestors. So, the question becomes then, how can we approach or relate to nature under such individual and collective conditions of doing good, feeling bad and urban living? Should we simply discard whatever mode of environmental conservation action, dismantle related NGOs and focus our efforts on developing a non-capitalist and less urban global society? And, if so, where do we start?

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